As new developments and major construction projects continue to alter New York’s built environment, there is a constant urge to protect its architectural history. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is the agency tasked with conserving New York City’s buildings and neighborhoods, and its decisions are not always unanimously beloved.
This year, there were several high-profile preservation battles, from a beloved bookstore that fought against the LPC’s designation, to a landmarked restaurant where changes were made without the agency’s approval. These fights surfaced important questions that the LPC might consider going forward regarding landmarking sites whose significance is both cultural and architectural, as well as what it means for building owners for their property to become a city landmark. Some of these issues have already been resolved, but others will likely continue to unravel in the year to come.
Following a disagreement between preservationists and the owner of the Strand Bookstore, the building that holds the iconic shop became a city landmark in June. But the process sparked a debate about what landmark designation means for a building, including the costs associated with it, and the expectations (some would say burdens) that are then placed on the property’s owners.
The 92-year-old bookstore is located in a Renaissance Revival building at 826 Broadway, which the LPC argued should be landmarked for its architectural significance and its association with “book row.” But Nancy Bass Wyden, the Strand’s owner, argued that landmarking would place a “bureaucratic straight jacket” on her business, while her lawyer said that the designation would lead to “the downfall of New York’s greatest and most beloved bookstore.”
Several prominent authors supported the Strand in its opposition, including Gary Shteyngart, Art Spiegelman, and Fran Lebowitz. “Usually I’m on the side of the preservationists, but in this case, I agree with Nancy, because I know the Strand is a store, but it’s really a cultural institution that’s essential to the city,” Lebowitz told the New York Times. “And to put that [landmarking] on top of a bookstore is just not fair.”
While the LPC stood by its decision, some of its commissioners acknowledged the need to be “reasonable” to avoid hindering a building owner’s ability to run their business. A few months after the landmarking, in September, Bass Wyden said she would file a lawsuit against the LPC to overturn the designation.
Tin Pan Alley
Another heated discussion happened in April, when the LPC heard arguments for and against designating the five buildings on West 28th Street that make up Tin Pan Alley, widely considered to be the birthplace of popular music. A representative for one of those building’s owners testified against the designation, arguing that a history of bigotry in songs published during the Alley’s heyday rendered it unworthy of protection.
“[Tin Pan Alley’s] contribution was making bigotry socially acceptable … and justifying the stereotypes of blacks as less than,” the rep said.
Still, others who testified emphasized Tin Pan Alley’s place in African-American history, and the fact that it provided a space for marginalized communities to thrive economically and culturally. “If I remove Jim Crow, and I remove The Klansman, from history, I also marginalize the Civil Rights Movement—do we take away Huckleberry Finn from our libraries? No, it informs my children what my grandmother’s struggle was about,” Claudette Brady, founder of the Bed-Stuy Society for Historic Preservation, said during the hearing.
Eventually, the LPC unanimously voted to landmark all five buildings, with some commissioners rebutting the claim that the designation would celebrate the legacy of bigotry in early American music. “This designation does not celebrate racist imagery found in some of Tin Pan Alley sheet music, but it must acknowledge it and put it in a context of American history,” said Commissioner John Gustafsson. “We are preserving … to avoid people saying things like ‘it wasn’t like that,’ [or] ‘it did not happen.’”
White Horse Tavern
In March, the historic White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village sold to a group of developers (including infamous landlord Steve Croman), sparking concerns over the fate of the bar and its vintage character.
Though the building sits within the Greenwich Village Historic District, its interiors—which include an original oak bar and tin ceilings that date back to the 1880s—are not landmarked. The tavern is widely known as a meeting place for a who’s who of notable midcentury authors, including Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, and Norman Mailer.
After the sale, preservationists and elected officials urged the LPC to consider protecting the bar’s interiors. But in April, the tavern closed temporarily for renovations, with the building’s new owner, Eytan Sugarman, saying he intended to preserve the structure’s character.
The tavern reopened in late May with no significant changes. Sugarman told the New York Post that the bar’s banquettes, bar, and paintings were all kept, and that future changes will also preserve the place’s historical features: “We will be adding our own touches, like art exhibits, but everything people remember, the indelible parts, will still be there,” he said. One thing that did change is the menu, which was significantly revamped and now includes a $32 grilled lobster and fries.
After years of advocacy—and with a possible neighborhood rezoning on the horizon—five Gowanus buildings officially became city landmarks in late October.
The newly landmarked structures, including the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company building and the Gowanus Canal Flushing Tunnel Pumping Station and Gate House, were all built between 1884 and 1913 and are relics of the neighborhood’s industrial past.
“Landmarking these structures will help us to retain and enhance the arts and industry that have long shaped this neighborhood, one important element of our work together toward a more inclusive, sustainable, vibrant, and mixed-use future in Gowanus,” City Council member Brad Lander said in a statement following the structures’s designation.
But for local preservationists, the designations were too little, too late: They had initially asked the city to consider 29 buildings, and only five of those made the cut. Meanwhile, one of the buildings that was on the original list of proposed landmarks, the Bowne Storehouse, burned down in June, and was later demolished, which locals called “a regrettable shame.”
Tribeca Clock Tower
Time’s up for the landmarked clock tower that sits atop 346 Broadway in Tribeca: Following a 2015 lawsuit that claimed the LPC didn’t act appropriately when approving plans to transform the tower into a private penthouse, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city in early April. The appellate court ruled that the city was within its rights to approve the project—which includes replacing the clock’s mechanics with an electronic system and preventing public access to the tower—as part of a new luxury development called 108 Leonard.
As Curbed reported at the time, the decision represented a “significant blow to preservationists” who “argued that as an interior landmark, the clock tower should remain accessible to the public and claimed the plans violate landmark regulations.”
The debate over the fate of the clock, which has been raging for years, raised important questions about the power that the LPC holds to protect and maintain historical sites, as well as keeping those sites open to the public.
At a 2014 hearing, the LPC’s general counsel said that there was no provision in the landmarks law that required the commission to force a developer to preserve the clock’s original mechanism.
But in March 2016, State Supreme Court Justice Lynn R. Kotler annulled the LPC’s certificate of appropriateness for the project and said that “if the commission can issue a violation for [the clock’s] removal or alteration, the Legislature intended to give the commission the power to compel the owner to maintain the clock’s mechanical operation.” Kotler also referred to the power that LPC has to regulate an interior landmark, which “must include the ability to direct an owner to maintain public access, since public access is a specific characteristic of an interior landmark.”
The operators of the Pool, one of the two restaurants at the former Four Seasons Restaurant (located in the iconic Seagram Building), made changes to the Philip Johnson-designed interiors without LPC approval, even though the dining room is an interior city landmark.
With approval of the building owner RFR Holdings, the operators added a reception desk to the restaurant’s lower level, changed its wall coverings, and added a bar to a mezzanine, among other things. The changes were met with backlash and first presented to the LPC in September 2017. At that time, the building owners were asked to come up with a revised design for the space, which they presented in July this year.
At the hearing in July, representatives form MdeAS Architects, the firm in charge of correcting the previous alterations, presented their revised proposal, which the LPC ultimately approved. Though it was resolved, the incident signified a significant oversight, with one of the LPC commissioners calling RFR’s move “shameful.”
“I find it completely despicable that an applicant who knows better—who absolutely knows better—goes ahead and makes changes like this in a space … that they know is regulated by the LPC,” commissioner Michael Devonshire said.